Investigate disturbing rumors from a recently reopened asylum.
PC Release: September 4, 2013
By Ian Coppock
It’s been a year since I first played Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and I still can’t decide if I like it or not. As an Amnesia game it’s an unforgivably dumbed-down experience that only a neanderthal would find challenging, which in turn makes it less scary. Yet, the story and atmosphere are top-notch. Regardless, I didn’t get the unadulterated butchery-fest I would expect of an Amnesia game, but now I realize I played the wrong release. Outlast, a horror title created by an outfit of Ubisoft and Naughty Dog veterans, came out at the same time and contains all of the horror that Machine for Pigs did not.
Outlast is a first-person survival-horror game and the debut product of Red Barrels, a cabal of Quebecois psychopaths. It casts you in the role of Miles Upshur, a modern-day investigative journalist who will do the assignments and take the risks that desk-bound reporters dare not.
After receiving an anonymous tip, Miles makes his way to the Mount Massive Asylum, a 50s-era nuthouse recently reopened by a shadowy corporation. The facility is located high up in the Colorado mountains, far away from any civilization or heavily taxed marijuana.
Miles slips into the asylum, armed only with his camcorder and balls wrought of the world’s bravest substance. Between the ransacked offices and trials of blood in the hallways, it didn’t take long for me to wonder if everything had gone shithouse. As Miles, you can’t fight your enemies; like every other horror game that I torture myself with, your only means of survival are running and hiding.
Outlast builds up its atmosphere quite nicely; the tension comprises a mixture of oily dark visuals and a near-perfect assemblage of sound effects, ranging from heavy footfalls to drops of blood. The game is also an outstanding constipation remedy, which I first experienced when this giant bastard jumped me near the break room.
From there, Outlast descends into an orgy of trauma and chaos, layered with blood-curdling visuals and the best horror game sound effects I’ve ever heard. This game is like a wild animal, alternating unpredictably between mild jump scares and encounters so horrifying as to provoke vomit from the eyeballs.
The question must be asked: is this game scarier than Amnesia: The Dark Descent? I hate to dethrone one of my favorite games of all time, but yes, Outlast is scarier than Amnesia. In fact, it’s the scariest game I’ve ever played.
So how is it exactly that Outlast manages to out-scare one of the most legendary horror games ever? It’s a combination of features original to Outlast, as well as elements that the game seized from Amnesia and then refined. Miles cannot fight, as I’ve said probably three times now. I was relieved and impressed to see that he can run quickly and even look behind him while sprinting, as well as parkour over stuff, but wept when I saw that the monsters are more than ready for such escape methods. Every chase sequence in this game, scripted or not (most aren’t) is a hair-raising experience. Rarely are the monsters not right behind you, giving you little time to hide.
That’s the second thing that Outlast improved upon in horror: monster intelligence. I’ve grown used to playing against rather moronic monsters in other terror titles, but Outlast‘s denizens are smart, checking lockers and looking under beds for the player character. Boy did I feel some kind of stupid when a monster I was sure I’d outsmarted hauled me out from under a park bench and gave me the old 1-2 with some bone shears.
Another element crucial to Outlast’s success as a horror game is the level design and environmental hazards. Mount Massive Asylum is a dark, dark place whose winding corridors teem with the blood of innocents and threats unknown. You can get lost if you’re not careful, though some areas were disappointingly linear.
At lot of the game takes place in pitch darkness. Miles can use the night vision mode on his camera to survive, but batteries are scarce and run down quickly, so you’ll have to be resourceful.
The visuals in this game are smooth and polished, which is great for a pseudo-indie effort. The game’s color palette is remarkably similar to the colors of the human anatomy, primarily because that’s what’s splattered all over the place.
Add a horrible green filter for your night vision, and a drab art deco tile set for the asylum, and you’ve got something that both looks great and perfectly anchors the game’s horrific feel.
The centerpiece of Outlast‘s ascension to horror success is the story, and a truly strange tale at that. Miles is a silent protagonist (though he screams and yells plenty), but the game includes a cast of terrible and unforgettable characters. These include a 7-foot-tall ex-soldier who relentlessly stalks you, a sadistic corporate executive-turned-“biologist”, and a schizophrenic priest who believes that Miles is the key to stopping whatever lurks beneath the asylum.
You’re drawn to Miles not only because you’re filling his role, but because he suffers. Oh God does he suffer. And in doing so, you’ll be compelled to see him, and this game, through to the end. Plot threads will recede into and burst forth from the darkness much like the monsters you’re running from, though it’s only at the game’s penultimate moment that the full, terrifying truth behind Mount Massive is made apparent. Some people might feel like that’s dragging out the story, and I empathize with you, but keeping mystery fresh is vital to horror.
The game also makes for a satisfying environment exploration experience. Pieces of the story are hidden in Murkoff Corporation and CIA documents scattered throughout the facility. I found notes detailing the asylum’s background, the monsters, and a bunch of spoilerific stuff that I won’t detail here. As a journalist, Miles writes down his thoughts as he gets closer to the heart of Mount Massive, but he’ll only do so if he has his camera out and recording.
Your camera’s normal mode won’t drain battery power, and it’s the only way to get some expression from your protagonist besides screams of pain and fear. While unique, my problem with this system is that it’s unclear what is worthy of eliciting a response and what is not. Filming a few random objects may be the difference between getting the whole story or not, and I’d rather not put such crucial context into the hands of fate. It offers an incentive for replay, but I shouldn’t have to miss out on Miles’s status or thoughts just because I didn’t film the correct blood-spattered wall.
Outlast jetted onto the gaming scene last year on PC and PS4, and because Microsoft decided that the Xbox One should reduce indie compatibility (because the company brain cell had been rented out that day), it was made available on that platform only recently. So if you’re a console gamer who’s read all my horror reviews with a sense of “well, at least I can’t ever experience that”, you’ve got no excuse to hide behind now! AHAHAHAHAHA!
Outlast is outstanding. It is the scariest video game I’ve ever played, and that’s a coronation I don’t hand out lightly. This game is NOT for the faint of heart or anyone seeking a light, scare-free atmospheric experience. For those of you in the latter boat, I’d recommend Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
You can buy Outlast here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.